Augustine fought many false teachings, including Pelagianism. This was the belief that free will made man the deciding factor in salvation. Augustine taught that man’s free choices are second causes within the context of God’s overarching control. Thus, God reaches down tochoose man, as Michelangelo depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. When men deny this they exalt themselves in the City of Man.
Who was Augustine? Augustine (354-430 A.D.) was saved from Manicheanism through the prayers of his mother, Monica. The story of Augustine’s conversion from an immoral life is legendary. Monica, had prayed for many years and often sought the advice of her local Bishop. Annoyed with her persistence, he once told her, “A son of so many prayers cannot be lost.” Augustine was convicted by reports of thousands of unlearned monks who were leading holy lives in Egypt. He became distraught that he could not control his passions in spite of his great learning. Retreating to a garden behind his house he flung himself to the ground. Then he heard a child’s voice from the home next door singing the ditty, “Tole Lege, Tole Lege.” Translated this means “Take up and read. Take up and read.” Augustine opened his Bible and read the first verse his eye fell upon, Romans 13:13-14. “Let us walk becomingly, as in the day; not in reveling and drunkenness…but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” At that moment Augustine believed and his life was changed. At age 42 he was appointed Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. He held this position for 45 years.
Historical context. Augustine fought attacks on the church on two fronts: 1) pagans outside, and 2) heretics inside. Arian attacks on the nature of God and Christ were subdued at Nicea (325A.D.). In Augustine’s day the battle for truth focused on the nature of man and Pelegianism. Pelegius, a Welsh monk, denied original sin and taught that God had given man a free will. Therefore, God does not predestinate men to heaven or hell. In other words, God does not choose man, man chooses God. This makes the will of man the deciding factor and superior. With the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) the Empire embraced Christianity. It remained nominally Christian until toppled in 410 A.D. The Pagan version of these events was that Rome was weakened by the Christian faith. Thus, it was ripe for destruction by the Visigoths. The fall resulted from the wrath of the Roman gods, who had been displaced by Christianity. Augustine refuted this pagan view in The City of God (426) and set forth a biblical philosophy of history.
Summary of Augustine’s teaching. Augustine himself was tainted by Hellenism (Greek thought). But his City of God was the first book to explain the two warring strands of thought competing for the soul of Western civilization. The two were Greek humanism and Christian Theism. At the heart of this battle, Augustine championed the sovereignty of God over the free (determinative) will of man. By arguing for the truth of Christianity based on its success in history, he unwittingly detracted from the authority of Scripture. Later in his Retractions Augustine expressed a more mature grasp of how understanding springs from faith, not vice versa. Being amillennial in outlook, Augustine expected victory for the church in eternity, but not in history.
In his Confessions Augustine reflected on the grace of God in his early life and conversion. Augustine also wrestled against Manicheanism, a philosophical system to which he subscribed prior to conversion. Manicheanism taught a dualistic struggle between equal and opposite principles of good and evil, light and darkness. The soul, being spiritual, must be rescued from its prison in the body via asceticism and abstinence. Colossians 2:23 speaks of those “having an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion…but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh.”
Implications for subsequent history. Ground gained by Augustine was later given away by the Council of Orange (529 A.D.). It concluded “that God hath predestined no one to damnation.” According to this moderate form of Augustinianism, God predestines His elect to heaven. The non-elect are simply left behind, not specifically predestined to Hell. And so the fires of heresy regarding the nature of man and salvation have smoldered in the church for centuries. Obvious examples were the works-righteousness of the Roman church, later rekindled in the Calvin-Arminius conflict. Sadly, the Reformers also inherited Augustine’s amillennialism and his bent toward divorcing the so-called secular world from the Bible. Moreover, the Roman Church abused Augustine’s teaching to seize temporal power. As Rome saw it, the church was the City of God, destined to conquer the saeculum, the pagan state. Pope Leo set the stage for this when he crowned Charlemagne (800 A.D). Having thus invited the state into her bedchamber, the church often got more than she bargained for. By 1000 A.D. civil rulers were investing bishops with office. This paved the way for the Papal Revolution of 1075.
Biblical analysis. Great error and conflict have arisen when the church is viewed as the same thing as the Kingdom of God. The church is just one aspect of that kingdom, albeit the central aspect. Rather, the Kingdom of God is the civilization of God. It is the overflow of the rule of Christ from the church into every realm of earthly life. At the climax of Messiah’s reign, the most common
things shall be sanctified by His law. Zechariah predicted “In that day shall there be upon the bells of the horses, HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD…Yea, every pot … shall be holiness unto the Lord….” (Zech. 14:20,21).
Corrective or prescriptive actions. When we accept the fact of God as Creator, we also deny the free will, or determinative will, of man. Either God is sovereign (supreme ruler), or man is sovereign. The question hinges on whose will is ultimate. “Ye have not chosen me,” said Jesus, “but I have chosen you….” (John 15:16). Man is free in Christ. But always remember that it is a derived freedom. It exists as a secondary cause within the overarching reality of God’s control.